A VOICE, A CHOICE: ‘Le Bon Pasteur’ by Jaques James Tissot (1886 – 1894); Brooklyn Museum

A VOICE, A CHOICE: ‘Le Bon Pasteur’ by Jaques James Tissot (1886 – 1894); Brooklyn Museum

 Jacques Joseph Tissot, later anglicised as James Tissot, was born in 1836 near the busy port of Nantes, France to a prosperous draper. At the age of 17, he embarked upon his artistic mission which spanned three successful periods. In the first phase in Paris (1859-1870), he enjoyed great success as a high-society painter. He lived among rich aristocrats near the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. His leisured, well-secured life was soon skewered by the struggles of the French Revolution.

The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and the bloody Franco Prussian war in 1871 compelled him to flee to London. Here, from 1871 to 1882, his career soared for the second time. However his successful eleven year sojourn ended in an emotional disaster. In 1882, his dearly loved mistress, Kathleen Newton died of consumption.

While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Woman of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of St. Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Amidst the patterns of brush and paint, he was drawn into a vision where he encountered Christ; Christ the Good Shepherd tending to the broken-hearted and the down trodden. This was his route to Damascus; his Metanoia! Deeply renewed in faith, Tissot now renewed his artistic vision.

He took off on a research trip to Holy Land, beginning his ten year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. The result of this endeavour was the magnanimous ‘Life of Christ’ popularly also known as ‘the Tissot Bible.’ It consists of a series of 350 water coloured paintings brimmed with profuse observations of the first century Jerusalem.

The painting in consideration is titled ‘The Good Shepherd’ and forms a part of the representations in the ‘Life of Christ.’ With lucid realism it elucidates the Gospel of John, chapter ten. The composition is visually divided into three significant segments – the background, the foreground and the protagonists.

The narrative unfolds amidst the dry and rugged terrain. The landscape is not bound by the monumental and exquisite architecture of the Renaissance. Rather it is swooped with stones and rocks. It introduces us to the wilderness of Jerusalem, a city that rests on a limestone plateau 2000 feet above sea level.

Summer has set in. As the scorching rays of the sun pierce the soft fleece of the sheep, the Good Shepherd embarks upon a journey away from the city to cooler pastures set upon higher ground. He watches his flock graze on the steep green slopes, singing to them a song of calm assurance. This pastoral imagery is far from fairy-tale beauty for the hills are harsh, the sun sears and the enemy awaits its prey. The bleating cry of a missing sheep sets the Shepherd into a frenzy search. He seeks his lost before they seek Him. ‘And if He finds it, He rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray’ (Matthew: 18:13)

Contrary to popular visual history, Tissot presents the Good Shepherd with absolute veracity as was witnessed by him during his stay in the ancient city. Christ is garbed in layers of sheep-coloured drapery consisting of a tunic, sash and mantle. A white cloth covers his head in protection against the burning light and the frigid night. His feet are bare, reminiscing the many thorns that strike them. Interestingly, the Shepherd holds onto his lamb with perfect security, while risking his life as he stands upon the craggy cliff precariously.

The silly broadtail lamb perches silently over the Shepherd’s shoulders crooning the famous Psalm of yore – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want…even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me’. Its long flappy ears are tuned to the voice of the Shepherd, even among the cacophony of several other voices, briar bushes and sneering snares of the wolves. This bears testimony to the bond shared between the Shepherd and the sheep. The deeper the relationship, the more familiar the voice.

As the lamb gazes upon the Shepherd, he encounters the Lamb of God, willing to take his place in the scandal of grace; the Shepherd who chooses to lay down His life to bring life to His sheep; the Shepherd of our soul whose death makes us whole.

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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